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Facilitation: how to conduct it effectively

Experts explain why teams and businesses need facilitators and what their responsibilities are. Especially for the Anywhere Club blog, Natalia Fursova, HR Business Partner PandaDoc, and Elena Glekova, PandaDoc Scrum Master, discuss facilitation.

Natalia Fursova and Elena Glekova

What is facilitation

— Natalia began the discussion by explaining that facilitation is a way to effectively organize and guide group discussions to achieve the best and fastest results. Facilitation is a process that leads a group to make a team decision. In English, facilitate means to make something easy or easier, which reflects the essence of the method. Goal-based facilitation helps focus the discussion and enhances its effectiveness by creating an environment that encourages collaboration and a quick resolution of issues.

Facilitation can be very useful when you need to reach a compromise, make complex collective decisions, develop a strategy, deconstruct goals, or bring a team together in the shortest possible time. An important advantage of the method is the involvement of participants in the process. As a result, all parties understand that the result achieved belongs to them, and can appreciate their individual and collective responsibility. Often, the process also brings clarity to the organization, assisting in future interactions.

Modern trends and business realities increasingly create the need for a facilitator within companies.

What are the responsibilities of a facilitator

To answer the question of who is a facilitator, this is a specialist who is able to organize and conduct a group discussion so that the goal is achieved.

There are a number of conditions that enable this to happen:

  • The necessary expertise is always within the group, and the facilitator organizes the process in such a way that the collective expertise manifests itself as much as possible;
  • Generally speaking, people are able and willing to negotiate if the right conditions are created. The facilitator selects the appropriate structure for the discussion and, using special techniques, directs the participants to the goal;
  • The role of the facilitator is mediative, not expert. If the facilitator gives advice, that changes the nature of the process into something different; and
  • The facilitator creates a space of trust and inclusion in the process that helps participants open up and interact effectively with each other.

Thus, the facilitator is responsible for the process, and the group is responsible for the content.

Any participant in a discussion, with proper preparation, can take on the role of a facilitator as well as a group member, especially when it comes to facilitating typical short meetings.

Limitations of facilitation

— Elena picked up the discussion here by explaining that the success of facilitation depends not only on the quality of the work done by the facilitator, but also on the willingness of the group to actively participate in the process.

Participants in the discussion should:

  • Engage in respectful conversation;
  • Express ideas;
  • Listen to each other; and
  • Find solutions together.

Even the most thoughtful facilitation will not lead a group to a successful outcome, however, if the group members do not understand or engage in the process of resolving issues.

Facilitation is not a magical tool that can solve any problem at any time. No matter how cleverly the discussion is organized, no matter how actively the participants are involved, it is unlikely that a group will be able to draw up a win-win plan for how to achieve world peace. Even if a goal is achievable, it takes time to work out a group solution. It's hard to agree on a good strategy for entering a new market if the sales team is so busy with its current workload that they can only allocate half an hour for this discussion on Friday after the end of the working day, for example.

Facilitation is also not the tool with which a group can be led to decisions that have already been made. Trying to use it for this purpose crosses the line into manipulation and has nothing to do with facilitation. The most appropriate course of action, if a decision has already been made, is to honestly state it to the group and, if necessary, organize a discussion about how everyone should live with it now. If a company has already made a decision to cut staff, for example, it is not fair or appropriate to gather department heads to supposedly discuss ways to cut the budget: you should not expect the group to come to a decision to cut part of the employees. It will be much more effective to discuss how to minimize the negative consequences of downsizing.

Skills for Facilitators

Facilitator as architect

In order for a discussion to be successful, the facilitator first helps the group to build the logic of the discussion. Just as an architect creates a design for a house based on the needs of the client, so a facilitator thoughtfully prepares the structure of the group work, taking into account the needs of the group.

If we talk about the “architectural” component of facilitation, the facilitator adds value by knowing general principles of building fruitful group discussions, as well as various typical facilitation techniques — brainstorming, a start-stop-continue scheme, and others.

Facilitator as a guide

In addition to designing the discussion, the facilitator supports the group during the session. Just as a guide accompanies a group on a hike, so a facilitator is present during the discussion and helps the group move forward.

The facilitator is assisted in the role of “guide in the discussion” by special micro-techniques that can be applied to any discussion, regardless of its purpose or structure. Examples include: summarizing; clarifying questions to make a participant's position clear; emphasizing the commonalities among the opinions offered; providing a reminder of the purpose of the discussion; etc. All of these micro-techniques complement a thoughtful discussion structure and enhance the group’s collaborative thinking.

How to design a facilitation session

— Imagine that you are a member of a team that is tasked with agreeing on a work plan for the next six months. Or imagine you are a general manager who wants to re-position the company in the market and rethink its mission and strategy. Or imagine you are a product manager who wants to discuss three potential scenarios for implementing new application functionality with the development team.

In each of those situations, facilitation can be a way to engage the team, colleagues from other teams, and stakeholders, in a constructive discussion. Everyone will be able to express their opinion, listen to other participants, work on generating completely new ideas, and take responsibility for the decisions made and the results.

Facilitation Questions

— Natalia joined in again to provide a basic list of the right questions to start a discussion. The list is not exhaustive, but rather a minimum starter kit:

  • What is the purpose of the discussion?
  • What will the outcome of the discussion look like? How will you understand that the goal has been achieved?
  • Who needs to be involved in the discussion in order to reach the goal? What kind of expertise is needed? Whose presence is necesssary for a decision? Who has the ability to show up and unilaterally change things?
  • What is already in existence? What has already been done/prepared? What do the results of past discussions look like?
  • How much time is the group willing to devote to the discussion?
  • What discussion format is available that will help us achieve the goal? Offline, online? If online, what tools will we need — for example, an online whiteboard?

After the goal is clear and the minimum inputs are known, you can begin to plan the route — that is, think about how exactly to help the group reach the goal, taking into account all the inputs.

Facilitation Scheme

— Elena summed up by explaining that the classic facilitation scheme helps to build a discussion route. As a rule, a facilitation session consists of four main parts:

  1. Create a common context: share introductory information that is important in the framework of the upcoming discussion, and add in the big picture for context.
  2. Generate ideas in response to the focusing question for discussion.
  3. Discuss ideas — structure, group, combine, and supplement them.
  4. Make a choice and work on the final decision of the group, which must meet the specified criteria. Whether this involves voting for the most attractive idea or compiling a list of ideas for further development: it depends on the result you wanted to come to.

Explained this way, it looks simple, but the devil is in the details. Depending on the tasks we assign to facilitation, as well as the complexity and scope of the issue, this simple classic facilitation scheme can vary and change — sometimes beyond recognition.

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